Games are about, among other things, freedom. To design a game is to create a system in which people are free — free to play, free to explore, free to excel. The boundaries — rules, game board, etc. — define the space of freedom.
Those who are familiar with governance best practice (for example the Carver system of corporate governance, also known as “governance by policy”, or the sociocratic system of governance) will recognize the idea of a bounded space in which players are free to act to accomplish their shared goals.
The value of freedom in an organization cannot be overstated. People require clear boundaries, but when the boundaries are completely prescriptive — when there is no room for experimentation or improvisation or learning in one’s work — people begin to suffocate and die.
The past twenty years of research into the phenomenon of Flow illustrates this point well. As pioneering researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has shown, people thrive in environments where they experience the right balance between challenges and their skills.
This chart illustrates that balance. Where people must bring their best-developed skills to bear on significant challenges, they enjoy peak experiences in the ‘flow state’, where the sense of time falls away and deep fulfillment occurs. When challenges begin to outstrip a player’s skills, that person moves first into arousal, then into anxiety. When skill outstrips the challenge, a player moves into control, then relaxation. If neither challenge nor skill is high, the player experiences worry, apathy, and boredom. This is true in games, and in the workplace.
In order to confront meaningful challenges, a player must be free to experiment and apply skill to meaningful choices. The art of game design is, in part, the art of defining meaningful choices and challenges in a way that matches players’ skills. For that reason, we know that game design is essential to the Genius Organization: the task of drawing out the genius of employees and customers requires us to consider the games that will leave them most creatively alive, and to set up the rules so they are free to face those challenges at the appropriate time.